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We have explored several of the great basketball debates over the course of the week, most dealing with in-game strategy. Today's debate is an off-the-floor one - whether or not the influx of foreign-born players is good or bad for the game of basketball.
Basketball is an American game. It was invented by American James Naismith in America. The greatest players - Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - are all Americans. With the exception of the Toronto Raptors, the NBA resides exclusively in America.
On the other hand, basketball has become a worldwide passion. It is played across the globe. The Olympic Games have clearly shown that America no longer has a monopoly on the sport. Even the NBA is littered with foreign players. Look at this potential roster of foreign-born NBA players:
(Tim Duncan was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so I'm leaving him off).
At this point, about 10-12% of the NBA is foreign-born. The invasion is here, but is it good for the game?
1) American crowds want to watch American players
Sad, but true. Americans want to cheer for fellow Americans with last names they know - the Johnsons, Smiths and Joneses of the world. Ilgauskas? Ginobli? No matter how good these guys might be, there will always be a stronger appeal for local boys. The NBA is a business that depends upon advertising, television ratings and game attendance. If the fans do not care about the players on the court, they don't watch or attend the games. That is bad news for David Stern and bad news for the sport.
2) Foreign players take American jobs
The NBA is outsourcing its jobs to cheap foreign labor! Maybe not cheap, but it is foreign. For every Tony Parker, there is a Darius Washington Jr. out of a job. The NBA has always been a way out for kids from the wrong side of the tracks, but those opportunities are more and more limited by the influx of foreign players.
3) Foreign players are flopping, whining, soft, annoying players
I lived in Memphis, TN for three years where I heard the same complaint over and over again about the Grizzlies' superstar Pau Gasol:
"He is too soft."
Then I moved to Houston, TX for three years where I heard the same complaint over and over again about the Rockets' superstar Yao Ming:
"He is too soft."
That seems to be a common sentiment about most foreign-born players. Not only are they considered soft, they tend to be whiners (Ginobili, Dirk), floppers (Ginobili, Anderson Varejao) and annoying (Ginobili).
Okay, maybe I just don't like Manu Ginobili.
In all seriousness, one of the reasons soccer has never appealed to Americans is because of the flopping and crying. Americans like football players. We like ultimate fighters. We want real men doing battle, not actors. We like the guy who takes it strong to the paint more than the guy who drives looking for a foul. We like the shot-blocker, not the charge-taker. We like the elbower, not the elbowee.
David Stern has actually spoken about this prevailing problem. He would like to address the excessive flopping and whining (the league actually did crack down on the latter a couple of years ago) because it makes for a less enjoyable game.
1) Better players = better basketball
Like most fans, I like good basketball. I watched some last night between the Lakers and Suns. It was fast, athletic and exciting. Guys were making shots and making plays. Guys like Steve Nash (Canada), Leonardo Barbosa (Brazil), Pau Gasol (Spain), Boris Diaw (France) and Sasha Vujacic (Slovenia).
See my point?
The NBA hurt itself with expansion in the 1990s, but now that foreign players are coming to America in droves things are starting to change. The game is getting back to the high-scoring, exciting basketball of the 1980s because there is real talent on the floor.
2) Foreign players bring fundamental basketball back to America
Instead of watching 20-year old kids who lack fundamentals, a jump shot and any understanding of the game run up and down the floor simply because they are athletic, I get polished, outstanding players putting on a real show for me. Look at the scoring in the NBA these days; it is not just because teams like Phoenix and Golden State are running. Those teams would have no success if they did not have the personnel to make the baskets. Today, offense is coming back to the NBA because foreign players actually know how to shoot the ball.
3) Foreign players will save college basketball
We have seen several foreign born players have great college careers (Bogut, Nash, Eduardo Najera) and some are having them right now (Vanderbilt's Andrew Ogilvy being my favorite), but that is not what I mean here. Foreign players are forcing American kids to play better basketball. Instead of drafting raw American kids, NBA teams can choose a polished foreign veteran. This means that these raw American kids will be more likely to spend 2-3 seasons in college actually learning how to play.
College basketball has greatly benefited, on the floor at least, from the NBA draft age rule. Kids like Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley would never have played a possession of college basketball without that rule. The influx of foreign players will have a similar effect. As foreign players continue to take draft positions away from college players, we will see more kids staying longer in college because there is not an NBA option waiting for them anymore. The college game will get better as more juniors and seniors make up rosters, more top-notch talent is on the floor and the occasional foreign-born player makes a collegiate impact.
I'm no xenophobe - bring 'em over. I like good basketball, no matter who is playing it. The argument that America kids are out of jobs is unconvincing. We are a capitalist country, after all, so why limit competition. You want the job? Get better. Learn how to shoot and learn how to play the game.
As far as wanting to pull for American kids, I love Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitski. I just don't buy the idea that those guys are not as likable as the Iversons, Bryants and LeBrons of the league. I do, however, hope the NBA will address the soccer mentality that some of the foreign players bring, especially when it comes to the dramatics and flopping.
Tomorrow - A plethora of basketball questions with a surplus of basketball answers.